How We Became Posthuman – Hayles

In the introduction to her book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Katherine Hayles states “Here, at the inaugural moment of the computer age, the erasure of embodiment is performed so that ‘intelligence’ becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human life-world” (xi). Yet, Hayles contests the notions that information is an immaterial entity which can be separated from embodiment as well as the idea that the human consciousness is simply information. She states, “What embodiment secures is not the distinction between male and female or between humans who can think and machine which cannot. Rather, embodiment makes clear that thought is a much broader cognitive function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it. This realization…is so broad in its effects and so deep in its consequences that it is transforming the liberal subject…into the posthuman” (xvi).

For Hayles, the posthuman view 1) privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, 2) considers consciousness as an evolutionary upstart, 3) thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, 4) configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines (2-3). She states, “the posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-information entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (3). Hayles does on to point out that such a posthuman view limits agency because individual agency is undercut by a collective heterogeneous quality. She states, “there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will” (4).

While Hayles does not “mourn” the constructions of individual agency that are so frequently co-constructed within systems of domination, she worries that the posthuman view “might be made to keep disembodiment from being rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity” (4). Thus, Hayles suggest an alternate way of thinking about embodiment in the age of virtuality. The alternate framework she establishes has two polarities: one which “unfolds as an interplay between the body as a cultural construct and the experiences of embodiment that individual people within a culture feel and articulate” and another which “can be understood as a dance between inscribing and incorporating practices” (193).

Regarding the body/embodiment polarity, Hayles argues that, “the body is an idealized form that gestures toward a Platonic reality, [while] embodiment is the specific instantiation generated from the noise of difference” (196). In other words, embodiment is “imbricated” in culture. Yet, while the body is naturalized by a culture, embodiment as individually articulated and thus causes a tension between body and embodiment. This tension can be enriches via the other polarity of inscription/incorporation. Inscriptions, like the body, are normalized and abstract. Inscriptions are “a system of signs operating independently of any particular manifestation.” (198). On the other hand, incorporations cannot be separated from its embodied medium – it exists “only when it is instantiated in a particular kind of gesture” (198). Thus as the body is to embodiment so too is inscription to incorporation. Having established the two polarities, Hayles argues there are four distinguishing characteristics that emerge from the interplay between them. To quote at length, Hayles states:


Following these polarities, Hayles move onto another dialectic – that of pattern/randomness and presence/absence. Hayle’s illustrates this dialectic as such:




Hayles then suggests that the interplay between presence and absence is materiality, that the interplay between presence and randomness causes mutation, that the interplay between absence and pattern is hyperreality, and that the interplay between pattern and randomness is information. The dialectic then becomes:


This dialectic shows “how concepts important to the posthuman…can be understood as synthetic terms emerging between presence/absence and pattern/randomness” (250). To tie all the dialectics together, Hayles states in the closing chapter, “One way to think about the transformation of the human into the posthuman, then, is a series of exchanges between evolving/devolving inscriptions and incorporations. Returning to the semiotic square, we can make these possibilities.”


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